Slipping Into the Light

4 minute read
Michael Fitzgerald

Let me tell you about …” So begin the e-mail missives of Hiroshi Sakamoto, the septuagenarian survivor of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, whose love of haiku poetry is later parlayed into an appreciation of all things modern. In Gail Jones’ seductive new novel, his captive audience is young Australian Alice Black, who is researching her book, The Poetics of Modernity. And over the course of Dreams of Speaking (Vintage; 214 pages), a succession of machines are summoned, from the Xerox copier to the neon tube, to glow in the novel’s velvety darkness. Here the things which bring people together also keep them apart. “I wanted to read certain omnipresent phenomena through this ambivalence,” says Jones via e-mail. “The telephone for example is often represented as an estranging and distancing mechanism. I decided to go the other way and suggest that it may also represent new forms of intimacy, confession, radical disclosure”

A resident of Australia’s most isolated city, Perth, where she teaches cinema and cultural studies at the University of Western Australia, the author has herself become dependent on phone and e-mail. As with fellow West Australians Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolley, isolation has brought its own literary rewards for Jones, 50. “It’s a supportive writing community,” she says of Perth, “and feels outside of the more pathological aspects of competition and anxiety that sometimes seem to me very conspicuously a part of Melbourne and Sydney.” And it’s perhaps no accident that the themes of distance and disclosure have become the central tenets of her award-winning fiction.

Capturing both the intimacy and detachment of photography, Jones’ breakthrough novel Sixty Lights (2004) might well have been subtitled I Am a Camera. A snapshot of 19th century Australian orphan Lucy Strange, who picks up the camera to make sense of her curious, off-kilter life in London and Bombay, the book limned the early history of photography while foreshadowing the advent of the moving image. Strange by name and nature, Sixty Lights risked alienating readers but ultimately dazzled with its precise image-making, from a gentleman’s top hat set aflame in gaslight London, a dhoti-flapping Indian impaled by a shard of mirror glass, to the birth of Lucy’s daughter: “She was irrefutable, glistening, a kind of absolute light.” The novel was long-listed for London’s Man Booker Prize.

Fulfilling that promise with greater technical assurance and weight comes Dreams of Speaking, a gorgeous hallucination of the 20th century. Estranged from her working-class family in Perth and the “buzzing” new world that awaits her, Alice Black takes herself off to Paris to work on her manuscript where she meets Mr. Sakamoto, himself researching the life of Alexander Graham Bell. Over glasses of red wine, and later by e-mail, they toast their love of modernity. “The telephone is our rapturous disembodiment,” a typical paean begins. “We breathe our selves, like lovers, into its tiny receptacle, and glide out the other end, mere voice, mere function. Wires, currents, satellites, electrical systems: these are the hardware we extend ourselves into, spaced out, underground, alive in the trembling skeins that arch across nations.”

If a good novelist makes us look at everyday subjects in new ways, then Jones is an excellent one, and Dreams takes flight, skipping from descriptions of sound waves to Cellophane with bravura flair. But it is the invention of the Lumiere brothers that most delights the author and her characters. Whether transmitted via Greta Garbo’s laugh or screen Delilah Hedy Lamarr (who we learn helped patent a frequency-hopping radio-controlled torpedo during WW II), cinema’s light becomes the counterpoint to the private sorrows of Mr. Sakamoto and his confidante. The novelist says her love of movies began at the Sun, one of Australia’s oldest cinemas, in Broome, Western Australia, and in Dreams it is the medium which mediates a century of darkness.

At the other end of the modernist spectrum is the bomb, and when Alice flies to Japan to meet up with her mentor, she is forced to confront its legacy. Visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, she is stopped in her tracks not by the wall clock frozen forever at 11:02 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1945, or the array of appalling statistics (73,884 dead), but a single written testimonial which makes time cease for her: “From the window I saw my mother in the garden, picking aubergines for our lunch. She burst into flames.” Jones’ novel works in much the same way as this. With carefully chosen images and words, the reader is transported across the tyranny of time, to face a century of terror and awe.

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